Feds investigating if Menendez and wife got gifts including D.C. apartment, Mercedes and jewelry

Jonathan Dienst, Courtney Copenhagen and Tom Winter
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) questions Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Federal Reserve Chairman Powell during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on the CARES Act, at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, September 28, 2021.
Kevin Dietsch | Pool | Reuters

The Department of Justice is investigating whether expensive gifts were given to New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez and his wife, including a Mercedes-Benz, a luxury D.C. apartment, money and jewelry, sources familiar with the matter said.

According to sources, investigators want to know if the gifts — which would be valued in the tens of thousands of dollars — came from the owner or associates of an Edgewater, N.J., business that won a controversial exclusive contract to perform Halal meat certification with the Egyptian government — even though U.S. Department of Agriculture officials complained that the firm had no previous experience in this field.

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The questions about the gifts were first reported by WNBC and NBCNewyork.com.

"I am sure it is going to end up in absolutely nothing," Menendez said last week, denying any wrongdoing in connection with the ongoing federal corruption investigation.

Sources familiar with the matter say Damian Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, along with FBI and IRS-Criminal Investigation agents are looking into whether the senator and his wife, Nadine Arslanian, improperly took gifts from the owner or associates of IS EG Halal — and whether the senator took any action in return.

Menendez, a Democrat, serves as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee helping to oversee billions of dollars in aid to Egypt.

"Prosecutors would obviously want to look if money, apartments, cars were given to the senator or someone close to him in return for one of his official acts," NBC News legal analyst Chuck Rosenberg said.

In addition to the investigation into any possible quid-pro-quo scheme, sources familiar with the matter said IRS criminal investigators are looking into whether the alleged gifts were properly accounted for on tax filings by the senator and his wife. None of the items appear listed on Menendez's Senate disclosure forms.

Senate rules state in part that gifts to a member or someone close to him are considered gifts if a senator "has reason to believe the gift was given because of the official position."

A spokeswoman for Menendez declined to comment when asked if the senator or his wife received a Mercedes, free rent, money or jewelry from the IS EG Halal business or associates. She referred NBC News to past statements in which the senator acknowledged an ongoing "inquiry" and said that "should there be any official inquiries, the senator is available to provide any assistance requested of him or his office."

In 2019, IS EG Halal was awarded an exclusive contract with the Egyptian government to certify Halal meat exports worldwide. Seven longtime companies across the globe were suddenly fired by the Egyptian government and those firms lost millions in business to the Edgewater firm — a firm run by a Christian with little prior experience in Islamic certification of international meat imports and exports.

Peter Paradis, the former deputy assistant inspector general at the USDA, said the change in contracts "defies logic."

Paradis played no role in the current criminal investigation into the senator and his relationship with IS EG Halal. But Paradis points to past USDA reports on the controversy, including one that stated IS EG Halal "has no preexisting relationship with the US beef industry or Islamic organizations."

"This corporation has no track record of doing these types of certifications — and yet the country in question earmarks them as the sole entity to perform that task?" Paradis said.

A spokeswoman for Wael Hana, IS EG Halal's owner, issued a denial.

Sources familiar with the matter said that, as part of the ongoing investigation, the FBI is looking into whether any IS EG executive or associate paid any bribe to any Egyptian official. USDA Foreign Agricultural Service officers based in Egypt have turned over related documents to the Justice Department, the sources said.

"If representatives of this company were paying Egyptian officials for consideration, for favors, for an advantage in business, that's a crime," Rosenberg said. He explained any such payment could violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

IS EG Halal has said the firm won the contract on the merits and denied any wrongdoing.

A spokeswoman said the IS EG Halal firm won the contract "without any assistance from the senator or any other U.S. public official. Nor is there any evidence whatsoever that the contract was awarded based upon bribery or corruption in Egypt — and nothing like that has ever even been alleged."

A spokesperson for the Egyptian embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return several requests for comment.

Sources close to IS EG Halal said Hana, the owner, has been longtime friends with the senator's wife — and that friendship existed long before she even met the senator. One source familiar with the company said Arslanian had received gifts from the owner, including jewelry, over the years.

Sources familiar with the matter said investigators want to know if Egyptian officials knew of the ties between IS EG Halal and the senator's wife and whether there was any effort by any Egyptian official to try to run a foreign influence operation connected to Menendez.

"A senator can certainly help somebody in his or her state," Rosenberg said. "They can make connections. They can set up meetings. They can advocate for businesses within their jurisdictions. What they can't do is take money or gifts in exchange for an official act."

A spokesperson for Sen. Menendez declined to comment on any of the allegations, citing the ongoing "inquiry."

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a series of decisions narrowing the definition of public corruption. In 2018, Menendez had criminal charges against him dropped after a separate corruption the trial had ended in a hung jury. Allegations in that case were Menendez took gifts and free private jet trips from now-convicted Medicare fraudster Salomon Melgen.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams is overseeing this latest criminal probe, according to sources and individuals who have received subpoenas. Nicholas Biase, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, declined comment. A spokesman for the FBI and a spokeswoman for IRS-CI also declined any comment.

This investigation into Menendez appears to have grown in scope in the past couple of weeks, after a new round of grand jury subpoenas were sent out, including one to North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco. The new subpoenas do not appear related to any IS EG Halal-related matter but separate questions relating to the senator and state legislation relating to a proposed development deal, people familiar with the matter said.